Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Laboring in the Neo-Feudal Economy


A Part-Time, Low-Wage Epidemic: The jobs gained recently by the U.S. economy are disproportionately low-paying, insecure ones. By Mortimer Zuckerman. The Wall Street Journal November 5, 2012

[Excerpted] The number of Americans now working part time has soared to 8.3 million—up 313,000 in the past two months alone. With economic growth declining or stagnant for quarter after quarter, many companies feel it is too risky to take on people full time.

This has created an army of "underutilized labor." America's narrow unemployment rate is 7.9%, but it is 14.6% when accounting for involuntary part-time workers. The number of Americans working full time has declined by 5.9 million since September 2007, while the number working part time has jumped by 2.6 million....

By contrast, mid-wage occupations were 60% of recession losses but have been only 22% of recovery growth. Higher-wage occupations were 19% of jobs lost and have been 20% of jobs recovered.... [end excerpt]

Majia here: This is a compelling opinion piece by Zuckerman. The data I've been collecting for my book on neofeudal dispossession indicate dramatic declines in household income, particularly among young people (including college graduates) and minorities

The Obama health legislation (which I did not support because I think government should offer a tax-based program akin to medicare and deal directly with providers) did initially seem to slow the loss of health insurance, but new data indicate that companies employing lower-wage employees are cutting hours so as to avoid paying for health care:

Jargon, J., Radnofsky, L., & Berzon A. (2012, November 5) Health Law Spurs Shift in Hours. The Wall Street Journal, B1, B2.  

[Excerpted] Some low-wage employers are moving toward hiring part-time workers instead of full-time ones to mitigate the health-care overhaul's requirement that large companies provide health insurance for full-time workers or pay a fee..."

Majia here: This shift toward part-time workers will be very disruptive for low-wage workers, many of whom already shoulder more than forty hours a week in disparate jobs in order to make a "living wage."

Furthermore, some companies, like Wal-Mart, are not providing employees much flexibility in how they schedule work hours, complicating efforts to juggle multiple jobs:

Nadesan (2008) Governmentality, Biopower, and Everyday Life:
“Wal-Mart has recently applied lean manufacturing principles (i.e., flexibilization) to its human resources policy. Wal-Mart is currently attempting to “wring costs and attain new efficiencies” in staffing through “implementation of scheduling-optimization systems that integrate data ranging from the number of in-store customers at certain hours to the average time it takes to sell a television or unload a truck” to predict how many workers are needed at any given hour (Maher, 2007b, p. A11). These “labor-optimizing” systems schedule workers in response to variable need; subjecting them to fluctuating scheduling, and requiring some to be “on-call.” In 2006 the company implemented wage caps for workers and increased reliance on part-timers (Greenhouse & Barbaro, 2006).

Majia here: Labor in the neo-feudal economy is characterized by poor-wages, part-time work, and few to no benefits (including health insurance). Employees typically lack collective voice and are fearful of losing their jobs.

Even well-educated workers can fall into this economic sector because of the challenges involved in finding full-time living wage work in our still-depressed economy.

Companies that can afford to pay health insurance for employees and still operate profitably are morally bankrupt for forcing their employees into part-time work.

How much wealth has to be extracted from every second of labor and every resource in the environment before the entire system collapses in chaos?


Sep 20, 2009
Household income for people in their peak earning years — between ages 45 and 54 — plunged $7,700 to $64,349 from 2000 through 2008, after adjusting for inflation. People in their 20s and 30s suffered similar drops.

Sep 23, 2012
The Wall Street Journal has been reporting about stagnating household income and The Washington Post reported this week about poverty growing in high-income suburbs: Poverty grows in high-income Washington suburbs ...
Oct 09, 2012
From June 2009 to June 2012, inflation-adjusted median household income fell 4.8 percent, to $50,964, according to a report by Sentier Research, a firm headed by two former Census Bureau officials. Incomes have dropped ...
Aug 27, 2012
From June 2009 to June 2012, inflation-adjusted median household income fell 4.8 percent, to $50,964, according to a report by Sentier Research, a firm headed by two former Census Bureau officials. Incomes have dropped ...
Sep 17, 2012
Majia here: The article describes a Census Bureau report finding that annual household income continues to decline, falling for the fourth consecutive year. The report describes more people on Medicare. It also attributes ...

Oct 10, 2011
"Between June 2009, when the recession officially ended, and June 2011, inflation-adjusted median household income fell 6.7 percent, to $49,909, according to a study by two former Census Bureau officials. During the ...
Aug 31, 2009
"The most recent data available (for 2007) showed that the top 14,988 households (0.01% of the population) received 6.04% of income, the highest figure for any year since the data became available. The top 1% of ...
Nov 27, 2010
#3 According to the U.S. Census Bureau, median household income in the United States fell from $51,726 in 2008 to $50,221 in 2009. Median household income declined the year before that too. Meanwhile, prices have ...
Dec 04, 2011
Women's participation in the labor force kept average household income from deteriorating, but women's low wages in service and government sector jobs could not outpace men's declining wages. The average American ...


  1. Majia - greatly appreciate the effort you put into this blog, and read it regularly. One comment on this post, which I do agree with the premise - however, each and every day each one of "us" consumers makes a choice. Wal-Mart et al would not be profitable if nobody purchased through them chasing lower prices. Do you look for products "made in the usa"? Are you willing to purchase Channellock pliers for $35 instead of the Husky's at Home Depot for $7? Until consumers make the switch to quality not quantity, each and every retailer/manufacturer will be forced to cut costs to remain competitive. There are things I do without, instead of purchasing a lower quality product. Buy local when possible.

  2. Good point. We all have to be conscious of the effects of our consumption decisions.

    The Story of Stuff is an excellent book that educates consumers on how to analyze the resource environmental, and labor issues involved in everyday consumption decisions.

    The tyranny of small decisions can be avoided....


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